Friday, June 5, 2015

Reflections on the teaching of "Mathematics for Sustainability" - 2

Continuing my thoughts on MATH033... At the end of each class at Penn State, students get to fill out "SRTE" forms - that is "Student Rating of Teaching Effectiveness", a.k.a. "course evaluations".  I was especially interested to see what the students in Math 033 would say and I emphasized as strongly as I could that the course was brand new and that through their comments they had an opportunity to improve it for next time it was offered.  I was very glad to see the many extensive responses to this request.  In addition to comments via the SRTE process, three students took the time to write me longer emails describing their experiences in the class and their thoughts about how it might be made more effective.

So what did I learn?  Here are three things that stood out for me.
  •  First, I heard a lot of enthusiasm for the content and basic structure of the class, and (at least from those commenting) a desire to engage with it.  For instance, one student commented "The real world applicability of this course was tremendous. It allowed me to step back and analyze real word issues before jumping to conclusions and believing everything you read."   Or, "I really like the goal of this class and the relationship between math and the environment is a very interesting topic to study." Or, "The course was phenomenal! I wish every math course utilized the innovative educational tools and unique methods used in MATH 033. The course instilled in me a new found interest in mathematics and sustainability." (that made me happy).   On the subject of staying engaged: "Keep up the in-class assignments. Ask questions in class, make students answer them."  "The quizzes ultimately helped me a great deal in understanding what was going on in the class.A lot of times, it is up to the student to go over notes daily just to keep afloat and stay up to date.With the quizzes, it was mandatory- and in a good way."
  • Some but not all students indicated that they did not find it easy to ask questions.  "I also liked the question board that we used at the beginning and it didn't used much when the information was easier to understand. But then when it got harder, we didn't have the option anymore." "The open environment also really helped in learning and feeling comfortable enough to ask a question if needed." "Asking for clarification was daunting. Either he made you feel very small and no smarter than a paper bag," (oh dear, I am sorry - I truly believe that there are no stupid questions, only stupid answers) "or it was rushed."  The 'question board" referred to here was a Poll Everywhere live feedback board.  I gave it up because it didn't seem to be used much (and because I was paying for it out of my own pocket) but perhaps I should have persisted.
  • There was a definite opinion that the course material could have been more tightly tied together.  For instance, "The math we did in one portion of the class had little relevance, or effect on my understanding, of other portions of the class." To some extent this is unavoidable: we are trying to hit several different mathematical ideas/techniques.  One thing I would like to try is setting two or three cross-cutting sustainability themes and returning to them from different mathematical perspectives as the course progresses.
And now the biggie: the blogging requirement.  I required students to do a lot of blogging, and I gave only some general advice about what to write about.  Some loved it
I also really loved the blogging, it was interesting to have everyone collaborate on problem-solving and discussion.
But many others disliked the process, the unspecific nature of the assignments, and the way that blogs were graded.
i would remove the blogs or not make them count so much in the grade because they are so random and abstract and they don''t really help you to think about the overall purpose of the course. Instead the blogs are kind of a distraction and you are mainly focused on writing something lengthy enough to get a decent grade.
I continue to believe that writing needs to be a significant part of this course (including its grading), but it is clear to me that the way I do that needs to be improved.  I think I need to give more specific requirements, and enforce more revision. (I had dreamed of students bringing draft blog posts to office hours and asking me how they could be improved, but that didn't happen.)   At the same time I like the idea that in the end students are writing for public view, not just for the instructor.  We'll see how these things work out next semester.  I'm thinking hard about the writing component especially; I have been looking at materials like Student Writing in the Quantitative Disciplines by Patrick Bahls  and Four and a Half Useful Methods for Assigning Writing in Math Classes  by Annalisa Crannell.

Next item on my to do list is to revise the syllabus for the fall!

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